by ARP columnist Deesha Philyaw
One of my least proud mama-moments occurred a few years ago when my oldest daughter, Taylor, was about to enter kindergarten. That summer, her new school invited all the incoming kindergarteners to meet their new teachers and classmates, play on the playground, and have some popsicles.
We met at the playground adjacent to the classroom, and while the parents mingled, the kids played on the equipment and in the sandbox. Everyone was friendly and chatty, and I was all smiles. But when Darrell and Sherry Jackson (not their real names) walked onto the playground, the sky brightened and a chorus of heavenly hosts sang. I grinned at them, and they grinned back at me. Though strangers, we made a beeline to each other, damn-near running like long-lost lovers.
Our daughters would not be the Onlies!
The benefits of a private school education–yadda, yadda, yadda–the Jacksons shared my concern about my daughter being the only black child in her class. At least now, we gushed, the girls would have each other. When Taylor and their daughter Melissa met up at the sandbox, the Jacksons and I beamed like they’d just won a joint Nobel Peace Prize.
At the end of the gathering, the parents received a class list with phone numbers and addresses to facilitate playdates over the summer. I shared this info with Taylor as we drove home that afternoon. She replied, “Oh, that’s good! I’d like to play with any of those kids…well, except that brown girl.”
I almost crashed the car.
Already, this private school was a mistake. Our entire parenting career had been one big mistake. Taylor was accustomed to being around a veritable United Nations of children–and yet, she’d come to prefer children of all colors over black ones. How had this happened? On my watch? My grandmother had been on a first-name basis with Jim Crow down South. My mother remembers “colored” water fountains. Alas, I had strayed too far from home. My child didn’t have to worry about dogs and hoses, but in the process of “moving on up”, we’d taken a wrong turn somewhere. Into “Anybody but that brown girl”-ville.
At first I couldn’t speak. I didn’t know what to say. Then I remembered the “I Hate That About Racism” spots Radio Disney had been running ever since the fallout from the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The spots defined racism, in part, as disliking people because of their skin color. Precocious Taylor was very interested in these spots, and asked lots of questions about racism. So, I thought we’d start on common ground.
“Taylor, not wanting to play with someone because of her skin color is racism.” Well, it’s really prejudice, but we haven’t learned that word yet.
I can see in my rear-view mirror that Taylor’s eyes are now as large as saucers, and starting to fill with tears. “I don’t want to be a racist, Mommy.”
“I know you don’t, sweetie.”
My heart is racing. I’m at a loss as to what to say next.
“Taylor, I know you see white people everywhere. On TV, in movies, at the stores. Everywhere. That doesn’t mean they are better than people who aren’t white…it just means…” What does it mean? “It just means that…there are more of them.”
Geez. Nice job, Mama.
Taylor looks shell-shocked. Then, a light bulb goes off in my frantic head. Maybe…maybe I should ask the child WHY she didn’t want to have a playdate with the brown girl. Yeah, that’s it!
I ask. Taylor, with fear and trembling, answers: “Because she threw sand on me when we were in the sandbox.”
Lesson learned: I’m an idiot.
Seriously. Lesson learned: Ask questions. Sometimes, a child can’t articulate her motivation for doing or saying something, and “why?” can be a loaded question–but sometimes she can.
(Post-script: Melissa and Taylor are still friends to this day, even though Melissa is now at a different school. But Taylor is not the Only in her class. Nor does she remember this incident. I told her about it the other day, and she laughed at me. A lot. Suffice it to say, she wasn’t scarred for life. Grounded, maybe. But not scarred.)
Recently, I had a chance to redeem myself. My four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Peyton, asked me to play her favorite (and one of my least favorite) games: Pretend.
“Mommy, you be the little girl at school, and I’ll be the teacher. Okay?”
“Okay.” Did that sound enthusiastic? Oh, well. I tried.
“And I’m white, okay, Mommy?”
No, no, no…NOT okay! my Inner Neurotic Black Mama squeaked. All manner of heart palpitations ensued. But I took a deep breath and remembered the lesson I had learned from the Great Popsicle and Play Debacle of ’04. Don’t presume and ramble like a crazy person. Ask questions.
“Peyton, why do you want to pretend that you’re white?”
She shrugs. “Because.”
“Do you like being brown?” Somehow, I think this was a zig, when I should have zagged. Sigh.
“Yes. But right now, I want to be a white teacher. Can we play now?”
Deep breath. In preschool last year, her co-teachers were a black woman and a white woman, both wonderful. So it’s not like she’s never had a black teacher before and therefore can’t envision one. And isn’t this the same child who, few hours ago, wanted to be a cat? This might be something deeper; this might not be something deeper. You can keep planting seeds, keep affirming her in all her brown loveliness. You can play detective at another time, with more subtlety. Right now, just breathe. And pretend.
“Okay,” I say. “I’m going to be a Vietnamese girl.”
Peyton nods with excitement. “You’re Asian.”
(I could jump up and dance a jig. Several times in the past few months, whenever we have seen someone Asian, Peyton announces, “She’s Chinese!” or “He speaks Chinese!” Not so loudly that anyone would be irritated, thankfully. But I’ve tried to address this as much as one can with a four-and-a-half-year-old –that not all Asians are Chinese, or speak Chinese, or are from China. I mention our Thai neighbors and some of her older sisters’ friends and classmates, for example. We look at different Asian countries on our globe. (Note: If anyone has any suggestions for me in this area, I welcome them.))
So, I count this as progress, and in our game of Pretend, the fact that we “are” a white teacher and a Vietnamese student has no bearing on our interaction. The “teacher” is as pleased as punch, while her “student” is gritting her teeth with boredom, as per usual. Score one for the “race doesn’t matter” crowd. Score one for a mama who is learning as she goes.
Deesha Philyaw is a freelance writer who has written for Essence Magazine, Wondertime Magazine (a Disney publication), and The Washington Post. Deesha holds a B.A. in economics from Yale University and a Master’s degree in teaching. In her pre-mommy, pre-writing life, she was a management consultant, briefly, and then an elementary school teacher. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Deesha currently lives in Pittsburgh with her two daughters.